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The Shadow of the Stars and Stripes

by A. S. Burt

Manitoba Pageant, January 1961, Volume 6, Number 2

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

The opening of the cart trail between Fort Garry and St. Paul in the middle of the nineteenth century built up the Red River Colony and pulled down its government. No longer was this little community too remote from the outside world to attract immigrants, and they began to arrive in increasing numbers, Canadians and Americans. No longer could the Hudson's Bay Company maintain its monopoly of trade, conferred by its charter. What had been possible while all exports and imports had to be carried by the Company's ships through Hudson Bay became impossible when private traffic could come and go by cart across the nearby international border. As the royal charter had also given the Company the authority to govern the country, the Company tried to stop this trade, but the result was more than failure. The power of the government was broken, and the days of Company rule were numbered.

The settlers, growing ever more restless, wanted a free government of their own but could not agree on how to get it. Three alternatives were considered: transformation of the Company colony into a regular British colony, acquisition by Canada, and annexation to the United States. For various reasons the authorities in London backed away from the first of these, leaving the issue between Canada and the United States. In the winter of 1856-57 several hundred settlers petitioned Canada to take over their country, and in 1857 a British Parliamentary committee investigating the affairs of the Company recommended that "such territory as may be suitable for settlement," particularly "the districts of the Red River and the Saskatchewan" should be "ceded to Canada on equitable principles." In other words, Canada should buy it. Yet years were to pass before Canada was ready to make such a bargain, and meanwhile it looked as if the United States would get it.

Certain conditions of the time pointed clearly to American annexation. Manifest Destiny, which was American imperialism but not so-called because the word "imperialism" had not then been coined, was in the ascendant. In the American election campaign of 1860 William Seward, who was soon to become Lincoln's Secretary of State and later to purchase Alaska, proudly prophesied the inclusion of Rupert's Land in the American Union. Over in Britain the anti-imperialist movement was approaching its climax, anxious to avoid any new responsibility for colonies and to reduce existing responsibility for them. The Red River Colony was itself being Americanized because of its peculiar position, which made it an external appendage to the United States. Its business relations were almost wholly with or through the United States. Its only regular mail communication was provided by the American Post Office — at the expense of the American government. The only steamboat line was of Minnesotan origin. The only newspaper in the colony frequently said that public sentiment favoured annexation, and the governor of the Company's territory admitted that if the system of government were not changed the people might form a provisional government and seek annexation to the United States. Moreover it was the northern advance of American settlement that had established this rapidly growing contact with the colony. This advance was continuing and seemed almost on the point of reaching farther north into the empty prairie owned by the Company. What could stop it from taking over the country, as it had recently done in Oregon?

Had it not been for the American Civil War, 1861-65, it is highly probable that the United States, not Canada, would have been the heir of the Hudson's Bay Company. By turning the energies of the North to fight the South, the war pulled back the American arm that would seize what is now the Canadian Northwest. That war was also primarily responsible for persuading United Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia to form the Dominion of Canada, and for persuading the new Dominion that it must buy the Company's territorial empire lest it fall into the arms of the United States.

Page revised: 1 July 2009

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